Ukrainian soldiers benefit from U.S. prosthetics expertise but their war is different
Oleksandr Fedun had been in the Ukrainian army for two years when he got hit last May.
"The enemy reconnaissance did their job and they mined the roads," he says.
He was driving the first truck in a convoy. When he felt the explosion, Fedun says, he managed to swerve and block the road so none of his fellow soldiers would drive on into the mines. Then he started tying tourniquets on himself. Ukrainian medics saved him, but he lost both legs above the knee.
"Life doesn't stop at this," says Fedun, standing on two high-tech, full-leg prostheses, as he tries to stay upright while passing a medicine ball back and forth with his physical therapist in Silver Spring, Md.
Eight months after his injury, Fedun was flown here to get fitted for the legs and learn to use them. An array of charities paid for his trip: the Future for Ukraine and Revive Soldier Ukraine got him to the U.S.; United Help Ukraine is paying for lodging, transportation and support; Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics (MCOP) is fitting the prostheses and training him.
"The goal is to give him his life back," says Mike Corcoran, one of the founders of MCOP, and a prosthetics for over 30 years.
"We're giving them the equipment to live a normal life. They're tools, but they're not advancing him beyond what he lost," says Corcoran, leaning over a workbench covered in prosthetic feet.
Until just a few years ago, Corcoran says, his company was fully occupied with American military amputees coming from nearby Walter Reed — and some of the legs given to Ukrainian soldiers were donated by U.S. veterans. They're computerized and battery powered, but they're rugged, says Corcoran, and they'll help Fedun gain the confidence to use them every day.
"These are computer-controlled knees that learn how he walks. They recognize if he's going to stumble, and the knee stiffens up. And then as he switches from walking slow to medium to fast, they keep up with him. It provides him the stability, because if he's unstable and falling, he's not gonna walk," says Corcoran.
Since Russia invaded a year ago, it's believed that thousands of Ukrainians have lost limbs in the war, though the government in Kyiv hasn't publicly confirmed the number killed or wounded. Corcoran says treating American military amputees was different — with a few exceptions, they were leaving war behind. The Ukrainians here don't have that option.
The three Ukrainian soldiers at MCOP in Maryland last month all said they want to find a way to return to the fighting
"My plan is just to go back to the war and kill the orcs," says Dmytro Sklyarenko, using the Ukrainian slur for Russian soldiers. Sklyarenko lost his right leg, high above the knee, to shrapnel from an artillery shell.
Others want to get ambulatory so they can bring some lessons learned to the Ukrainian army.
"I need to pass my experience to the other guys," says Ruslan Tyshchenko, who served 25 years in the army as a sapper — a combat engineer trained in defusing or setting up anti-tank mines. That's what he was doing last June 8, he says, when a Russian surveillance drone spotted him and gave targeting information to the same tanks Tyshchenko was laying mines for.
"I was almost done installing them when the tank turned toward me," he says.
The shell exploded near him and flipped him in the air. At first he didn't even know which way to run. Then his men started shouting, "Sapper! Sapper!"
When tried to get up and run toward them he found his legs were useless. Stabbing the ground with his commando knife, he dragged himself toward them for about 30 yards. Then his men reached him and started pulling him by the arms, not realizing that a heavy anti-tank mine was still attached and banging against his right leg, which was visibly broken. His left leg was gone.
Tyshchenko's amputation is so high up — above his left hip — that doctors in Ukraine told him his only option was a wheelchair. That was about 20 surgeries, and seven months ago. Here in Maryland, he's learning to walk on a prosthesis, practicing with a safety harness that's hooked into a rail in the ceiling. That way when he falls he doesn't have to worry about hitting the floor.
Mike Corcoran says he wants these guys to win their war — and then have a normal life as civilians.
"Eventually this war's going to end — no wars go on forever. And the reality of all of this is going back to work or doing something, his rehab and all that, it's a lifetime. Prosthetics will be part of his life for a considerable amount of time," he said.
Even now, with all the help and attention and positive energy — Tyshchenko says it's been hard to adjust even to the good news — that he can walk again.
"For half a year, you don't have a leg and you never believe you would walk. And finally, you can stand up on your own and you can walk — psychologically it's very hard to adjust to," he said.
Here in the states, near Walter Reed hospital, Tyshchenko says he's felt the support and respect that people have for severely wounded veterans. They act normal around him. That's something he's craving — and his family have noticed, says his wife Iryna Tyshchenko.
"I see very clearly that he resists very much my sympathy and he wants me to treat him as a normal person living normal life, and that requires a lot of effort on my side. And in our family, I want nothing to change compared to what it was before the injury," she says, "I feel he needs that."
In Ukraine, she says, civilians don't really know how to do that yet, but as the war drags on, it's something they may be forced to learn.
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